The Dark Secrets of the Apparel Industry

Image: Daian Gan via Pexels

By Alejandra Pollak, Originally published September 14, 2021


New York Fashion Week (NYFW) took place from September 8th through 14th. On its final night, all eyes were on the Met Gala in New York City, arguably fashion’s biggest night of the year. Designers, models, celebrities, influencers, and the media — the entire fashion world — descended to debut couture, set new trends, and of course, to see and be seen. But if you look beyond the red carpets and runway shows, a decidedly less glamorous scene comes into focus. A scene in which New York rebuilds, recovers, and reckons with lives lost due to the record-breaking floods unleashed by Hurricane Ida, locally and across the region. The Met Gala is an emblem of fashion and a catalyst for trends in fast fashion. The visuals from the night’s event and those of storm recovery are starkly different, but make no mistake — they are undeniably linked. 


We are all witnesses to the ravages of climate change in full force. Hotter and longer wildfire seasons, extreme drought, and unprecedented flooding have cost countless lives and displaced thousands — if not millions — more. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the broader conservation community know all too well that animals and wildlife face equal climate-driven threats and continue to endure widespread death, habitat loss, and destruction that threatens species persistence. If you are outraged and terrified by it all, you need to care about the clothes you wear and the industry that makes them. 


Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry 

The real apparel industry, far more weighted in volume sales and fast fashion, is far from the glamour depicted in the coverage of the Met Gala and NYFW. The true apparel industry exists under the cover of darkness, hidden far from the view of the average Western consumer, and is almost entirely unregulated. In spite of continued efforts to remain in the shadows, the apparel industry has been exposed as one of the world’s most environmentally damaging sectors.


Multiple studies estimate the apparel industry is responsible for between 4-8.1% of global carbon emissions. Even by conservative estimates, the apparel industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. Seventy-five percent of the apparel industry’s carbon footprint occurs in the fabric production phase primarily dominated by China, a country with an energy grid heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Additionally, polyester — the dominant fiber in our clothes — is essentially a plastic derived from the fossil fuel, petroleum. With production outputs reaching nearly 150 billion garments per year, it is easy to see how the apparel industry has become a major contributor to climate change.


Figures measuring the apparel industry’s actual global water pollution are scarce. Yet even without hard industry data, there is consensus that fertilizers, chemicals, dyes, and extreme water intensity in textile processing have resulted in the pollution of rivers, freshwater, and marine ecosystems globally. Look no further than Bangladesh, the second-largest garment exporting country in the world. Its capital city Dhaka is an industry epicenter situated within a system of rivers that are regularly dyed the “color of the season” from factory wastewater. Three of these rivers are declared biologically dead.


Water pollution can be visible to the naked eye, but an unseen crisis impacts marine life and ecosystems: microplastics. When we think of plastic pollution, we think of plastic straws, bags, and bottles, but most of the plastic found in our oceans consists of tiny synthetic fibers invisible to the naked eye. As many as 209,000 tons of synthetic microfibers enter the marine environment in a single year, and a recent study warns there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. 


Microfibers shed from our clothing are small enough to bypass washing machine filters and wastewater treatment plants, entering our rivers, lakes, and oceans where fish at every level of the food chain ingest them. Indeed, we are literally eating our own clothing. More studies are needed to determine the exact long-term health impacts of microfiber ingestion in marine life (and on us). Still, early studies indicate they lead to digestive complications resulting in poor growth and reproductive output. 


Far from the red carpet and camera lens is where clothing goes to die. Most of our unwanted clothing ends up in landfills as textile waste that will never decompose. More complex is what happens to donated clothing that enters the second-hand market. Research led by The OR Foundation finds that only 10-20% of collected apparel is sold in the Global North. The excess is shipped in bales and sold at markets in countries in the Global South. Our increased consumption and disposal of reduced-quality clothing has overwhelmed these markets and has decimated local apparel and manufacturing industries. In the Kantamanto Market in Ghana, 40% of imported garments end up in landfills causing an environmental and waste-management crisis. 


What are the Solutions?

First, let’s identify what is not the solution: buying from brands that market themselves as sustainable. That’s often all it is — marketing — a scheme to create demand for new sustainable products without changing fundamental business models. News flash: your recycled polyester t-shirt, as good as it feels to buy, is not saving the planet. It is a feature of our capitalist economic system that we refer to ourselves as “consumers” before referring to ourselves as citizens. 


The number one question newly educated “conscious” consumers ask me is, “what sustainable brands should I consider buying from?” In other words, “how can I consume more sustainably?” rather than “how do I consume less?” and “what can I do to ensure my favorite brands are held accountable for their impacts?” The idea that we can “consciously” consume our way towards a more sustainable future and that the market will magically respond to our individual consumerism with more responsible business conduct is a myth debunked by author Elizabeth Cline, in the must-read Atmos piece, “The Twilight of the Conscious Consumer.”


To ensure the persistence of all animal species, including us humans, we must shift away from an individualistic mindset and toward a collective call for change to the apparel industry. Indeed our entire global economic system must shift to a model in which people, animals, and the planet we call home can thrive together. But shopping more, no matter how sustainable brands claim to be, will not get us there. Collective citizen action is the way. Here are a few ways to act now:

  1. Replace consumption with action. Turn off notifications; unfollow influencers and unsubscribe from emails driving you to buy things you do not want and do not need. Follow and subscribe to activists and organizations that will equip you with the resources, information, and daily actions you can take to join collective efforts to create meaningful change. Start by signing the New Standard Institute’s petition and sign up for its Rewoven newsletter.
  2. Engage politically. Support efforts to regulate the apparel industry. It is critical that we collectively demand legislation that compels companies to measure the environmental and labor impacts of their supply chains, and report transparently on investments and progress toward impact-reduction targets. Contact your representatives and make clear that you care about the adverse impacts of products sold to you. 
  3. Be a magnifying force. Share the work, insights, and calls to action of your favorite activists, journalists, and organizations with your friends and families. Bring the conversation to the dinner table.
  4. Learn. An excellent place to start is by reading works such as: Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment by Maxine Bédat; Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline; and Aja Baber’s Consumed: The Need for Collective Change; Colonialism, Climate Change & Consumerism. Follow these authors/thought-leaders on Twitter and Instagram and share their work. 


While red carpets highlight the most glamorous side of the fashion industry and the Met Gala nourishes one of the nation’s greatest art spaces — the timing and damage caused by Hurricane Ida was a stark juxtaposition and reminder of what’s really at stake. If our consumer choices are escalating the climate crisis, we need to take collective action and put the power back in our own hands.


Alejandra Pollak is Director of Operations of New Standard Institute (NSI), a think and do tank, advancing data-driven solutions to transform the $2.5 trillion apparel industry into a force for good for people and planet. Pollak is also an active Board Member of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), where she led board-level development strategies as chair of the International Development Committee.

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